The women in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Term Paper, 2006

19 Pages, Grade: 2,7



O. Introduction

I. Characteristics of Modernism

II. Comparison of Mrs Ramsay and Lily
II.1 Social life vs. individual search for values
II.2 Harmony vs. Chaos
II.4 Men
II.5 Creativity & Art
II.6 Fears
II.7 Lily’s Vision

III. Conclusion

IV. Sources

O. Introduction

Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Light House is a piece of literature which belongs to the literary genre of modernism. The characters struggle to bring meaning and order to the chaos of their lives. Woolf chose an anonymous narrator who speaks in the third person and describes the characters and actions subjectively, giving us insight into the characters’ feelings. The narrative switches constantly from the perceptions of one character to those of the next. The tone is poetic, rhythmic and imaginative. The novel takes place during the years immediately preceding and following World War I on the Isle of Skye, in the Hebrides (a group of islands west of Scotland).

In my term paper I will focus on the two central women in the story. I want to show that Virginia Woolf created two totally different characters but with a very interesting and complex connection and that Lily is a brilliant example of modernism. The first one is Mrs Ramsay, a woman still belonging to the Victorian age, the second, Lily Briscoe, a so called “New woman”. I want to compare Mrs Ramsay and Lily by presenting similarities and differences. I will look on different aspects and reveal the attitude or the behaviour of the women towards them. This is possible because of the stream-of-consciousness-technique which Virginia Woolf chose for her novel. In this way it is possible for us to get to know the most privet thoughts of the characters. Additionally, with Lily we find some theories of feminism of those days.[1]

The novel is divided into three sections, "The Window," "Time Passes," and "The Lighthouse”. The first and the last part each cover a day. The middle part covers ten year of war. Mrs Ramsay dies in this time span, which is why the focus in the last part is on Lily, whereas the first part focuses more on Mrs Ramsay.

To get an impression of the context of the novel, I commence with a short description of Modernism.

I. Characteristics of Modernism

Referring to the literary phase, the term modernism became first used in the 1960s. Its literary roots are due to the works of the French poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire and the novelist Gustave Flaubert, in the romantics, or in the 1890s fin de siècle writers. Its climax occurred before World War I, where the extreme experimentation influenced all the arts. The historical and social background of that period is also very drastic. With the ‘New Woman’, the peak and downturn of the British Empire, technological change, the rise of the Labour party, the appearance of factory-lines mass production and war in Africa, Europe and elsewhere, Modernism was not only been considered a literature of change but of crisis.

Additionally, modernism has frequently been seen as an aesthetic and cultural reaction to late modernity and modernisation. The term ‘Modernity’ was introduced by Baudelaire to describe the fashionable, fleeting and contingent in art, in opposition to the eternal and immutable. In relation to Modernism it means a new way of life, based on the changes wrought by industrialisation, urbanisation and secularisation. Its characteristics are disintegration and reformation, fragmentation and a rapid change, ephemerality and insecurity, chaos and cultural revolution. Modernity is further described as the culmination of the past and the herald of the future, including a moment of potential breakdown in social-cultural relations and aesthetic representation.

Nevertheless, modernity has been said to be an attitude rather than an epoch. According to Jürgen Habermas, one of the defenders of modernity, “the project of modernity, formulated in the 18th century by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, consisted in their efforts to develope objective science, universal morality and law and autonomous art according to their inner logic...for the rational organisation of everyday life.”[2]

Concerning Modernism, there can be made a differentiation into a time-bound and a genre-bound form. When time-bound, the reference is to the years 1890 – 1930. In this period most of the Modernist literature had been written, but most of this literature was not Modernist. When genre-bound, Modernism is associated with innovation and novelty. Characteristics of this change are radical aesthetic, technical experimentation, spatial or rhythmic rather than chronological form, self-conscious reflexive ness, scepticism towards the idea of a centred human subject, and a sustained inquiry into the uncertainty of reality. Modernism was not interested in history because truth is not evolutionary and progressive but something requiring analysis. The focus was on the micro- rather than on the macrocosm, and thus, more on the individual than on the social. The things themselves were important, which is why producing art was about itself and texts were self-contained rather than representational. The trend was towards disjointed, disintegrating and discordant in opposition to Victorian harmony. Additionally, a new openness arouse towards sexuality and family. Open descriptions often sympathetic to feminism, homosexuality, androgyny and bisexuality and the questioning of traditional families which seemed to restrict the individual’s search for personal values. In conclusion, characteristics of Modernism are extreme experimentation, its complexity, its formalism and its attempt to create a ‘tradition of the new’. But on the other hand there was also fear of the new, and delight at the disappearance of the old, creativity and despair, nihilism and fanatical enthusiasm.

II. Comparison of Mrs Ramsay and Lily

As we learned already in the preceding chapter, Modernism is characterised by chaos and disjunction, whereas the Victorian age seems to be full of harmony. With Mrs Ramsay we will find a woman from former times who tries to maintain the old traditions and values. Lily, on the other side, is a so called “New woman”.

In the following we will see in which way they differ and in which way the two women have similarities. With those two women, Virginia Woofl chose two characters who present very well the old and the new times.

II.1 Social life vs. individual search for values

Mrs Ramsay is an over-fifty-years old mother of eight children. She has a very beautiful outer appearance. Her beauty seems to mirror the harmony and beauty of the old times. But is there beauty and happiness in her inner as well? (I will come to this point later).

As a woman from the old Victorian age, Mrs Ramsay’s world and point of view is built on traditions. Therefore the family is the most important for her and she thinks that without a family one cannot be happy and must feel alone (“poor man! who had no wife and no children...”, p.114). In this sense she tries to arrange marriages between her children and the guest who stay with them in their summer house. In her opinion it is the most important to marry because otherwise, she says, a girl would miss the best part of her life. (“They all must marry [...] there could be no disputing this [...] an unmarried woman has missed the best part of life”, p.67).

Lily in contrast is no beauty at all. She has “little Chinese eyes and [a] puckered-up face” (p.25). Mrs Ramsay thinks that it has charm “but [that] it would take a clever man to see it” (p.37). Nevertheless, Mrs Ramsay is sure that although “She faded under Minta’s glow; because more inconspicuous than ever, in her little grey dress with her little puckered face and her little Chinese eyes. [...], of the two Lily at forty will be better. There was in Lily a thread of something; a flare of something; something of her own which Mrs Ramsay liked very much indeed, but no man would, she feared.”(p. 140-141). Here we can already notice the emphasis on Lily’s inner rather than on her outer appearance as with Mrs Ramsay. Therefore the interpretation is close by hand that Lily’s outer appearance mirrors the characteristic of that time: not the result is important but the thing or the process itself.


[1] Virginia Woolf was member of The Bloomsbury group: "They really were the progressives and the embodiment of the avant-garde in early years of this century. Every time we look at them again they seem to have something for the contemporary world, whether in sexual ethics, liberation, biography, economics, feminism or painting."— Michael Holroyd, in the San Francisco Chronicle , 1995
Virginia Woolf's concern with feminist thematic are dominant in A Room Of One's Own (1929), which deals with the obstacles and prejudices that have hindered women writers, and explores in the last chapter the possibility of an androgynous mind. Three Guineas (1938) examined the necessity for women to make a claim for their own history and literature. Orlando (1928), a fantasy novel, traced the career of the androgynous protagonist from a masculine identity within the Elizabethan court to a feminine identity in 1928. Woolf was also prolific as an essayist, publishing some 500 essays in periodicals and collections, beginning 1905. Aus:

[2] Habermas 1981, p.9

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The women in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Bielefeld University
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ISBN (eBook)
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Lighthouse, Virginia, Woolf, Modernism
Quote paper
Ann-Kathleen Kraetzig (Author), 2006, The women in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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